By Chris Nguyen
‘Death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things.’ ~ Atul Gawande, M.D.
In a neatly-pressed suit jacket with a comical bow tie to counter the mood of the occasion, I strode down a narrow hallway of flickering fluorescent lights and grime-covered concrete walls in the only direction available; straight ahead. I checked my watch and noticed the hands go haywire. ‘Was I late?’, I thought to myself, impatiently tapping my foot before the elevator creaked open to reveal a brown, upholstered floor with cream-coloured wallpaper draping the walls. It was well-maintained; and updated quite often, clearly, with advertisements on the wall showcasing activities at the local YMCA. Zumba classes, nice touch. Putting my mind back on the task at hand, I looked up and counted the floors on the display as they descended further and further, at a steady, rhythmic pace. A quiet ‘ding’ announced the opening of the doors.
Bright artificial light flooded my field of vision, as I set my eyes upon a wide corridor with glossy, waxed linoleum floors. I stepped out hesitantly, as an odour of sterility wafted through the halls. A soft, continuous beeping sound played in the background. It was beginning to become clear that this wouldn’t be at all what I expected. Gripping onto my suitcase with a sweaty palm, I continue down the corridor as rooms appear on either side, each with windows covered by drawn fabric curtains, and after a few more twists and turns I faced a mahogany door. I heard a soft voice tell me to enter from inside.
‘Come in, come in!’
Words of welcome greeted me as I entered a lavish interior of old-school maroon leather seats and antiquated carpet. Stacked bookshelves covered the walls from floor to ceiling and a singular halogen ceiling lamp gave the room a dim yellow glow.
‘Nice to meet you. My name’s Death. One name, like Madonna or Beyoncé’, she says with a chuckle. ‘I never liked the name ‘Grim Reaper’. I’ve been expecting you, little bit late I’m guessing?’
She offered a bony hand out from under her long, black hooded cloak. Oddly, she also had a white coat on, with a lanyard containing swipe cards and a bunch of keys. It’s all true, I thought to myself. Everything you see on TV and the Internet is true. She’s actually just all skeleton. However, this only made the vitamin D supplements sitting on her desk all the more confusing.
‘Ah, yeah. Couldn’t tell unfortunately.’ I lifted my right hand to show her the hands on my watch continuing to whirr uncontrollably, also shaking her hand as I went.
‘These days, time tends to coalesce into a long, inseparable blur anyway. How do people understand the value of time and enjoy the moment without realising that it can slip away so quickly?’, Death continued, ‘Shall we get started?’
I sat down in one of the leather seats, positioning myself like a troublesome schoolboy meeting with headmistress Death at her grandiose desk.
Taking a deep breath, I gathered my thoughts and started to introduce myself.
‘My name is Christopher Nguyen and I’m a second ye-’
‘Alright, let’s cut the crap. Why are you really here? Got any questions in your briefcase there?’
I glanced down at the plain black briefcase I sat down next to my seat once I entered the room.
‘Nah… it’s alright. I’m here because I’m looking for answers. I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to see how you work.’
Where do I start? I’m talking to a skeleton. Do I crack a Halloween joke?
‘Okay, uh…wh-where are we?’
‘This place? It’s a hospital.’
‘You saw all the patient rooms and everything, didn’t you? The sounds of monitors beeping and humming, the tell-tale scent of chlorhexidine. I meant for it to look like your typical hospital.’
‘Yeah, well…I did see all that. I just thought that I’d be meeting Death in the fiery depths of hell, or a stormy, dry, pitch-black wasteland, you know? Not a relatively modern, spick-and-span hospital.’, I replied.
‘This is where we’ll both end up, and upon contemplation, I’ve realised that we will both be, in the most technical sense of the phrase, merchants of death. We just work as opposing forces towards an inevitable end result.’
‘I’m sorry, I’m not…following.’, I hesitantly replied, crinkling my forehead trying to decipher her metaphors.
‘There are no heroes or villains when it comes to death and dying. There’s a time and a place for everyone. Unfortunately, for many people, the time and place is here and now.’
She walked across the room, rattling along as she went, opening up a cupboard and pulling out a square monitor sitting on a solitary pole, numerous frayed wires snaking out in all directions.
‘See this here? An ECG monitor. You can read one of these, right?’
At this point, I assumed she would raise a judging eyebrow at me but it was none forthcoming or, well, non-existent. So it’s been a while since the tutorial. Sue me.
The awkward moment passed quickly as she traced the foreign squiggles of the ECG, and started counting down; ‘Five…four…three…’
What’s going on?
She remained silent, ending her little display by tracing one perfectly horizontal flatline across the screen, the echo of the ECG surrounding us.
‘Another one, just like that. And another 106 or so will be gone in the next 60 seconds.’
‘Who was that? Who died just then?’ She made dying seem so rudimentary. Calculated, statistical and dehumanised.
Matter-of-fact, almost with a sigh, she replied, ‘Father to two kids, loving husband. Horrific car crash, wasn’t even his fault. Never saw it coming. A life cut short too soon, wouldn’t you say?’
‘You just took away someone who meant a lot to many people. He didn’t do anything to deserve that, yet you just compartmentalised his entire being into a few seconds and a few heartbeats. How is that fair?’
Death’s soft voice washed over me again. ‘A time and a place. Was there much you could’ve done to stop that from happening?’
She continued, ‘I spend my days here, watching as the monitor ticks over repeatedly, with all these people just numbers and figures to me. I’ve accepted the inevitably of life and death for what it is, and it’s about time that you did too before you leave yourself vulnerable and exposed to your own emotions.’
I sat in silence, not really sure of what to say. I darted my eyes down towards my suitcase – it was gone.
Death perched herself on the front of her desk, arms and legs crossed, suddenly towering over me as I sat back in my seat.
‘You said you came here looking for answers, but you knew exactly what you wanted to hear all along.
You’re scared, and being scared is fine. You’re scared of the inevitability of death, and how you fit into the puzzle as a future doctor. Of how fickle life can be, no matter how hard you try to prolong it. You don’t feel ready to shoulder the responsibility and it mars everything you do with hesitancy. You want me to reassure you that as a future medical professional, you’re going to see this all the time, get used to it, become desensitised and that everything will be fine. This is a game of tug-of-war that you will always lose; you aren’t here to prolong life, you’re here to delay death, and you hope that all scenarios eventually lead here to me, a scapegoat you can blame when trying to understand and explain horrific twists of fate becomes too difficult for you.’
The room started to spin. She saw right through me, just as I did her. She’s right, even though I didn’t want her to be. Boom, roasted.
‘I have to go.’
Muttering, I reached for my imaginary suitcase of questions and answers I already had ingrained within me, grasping at air and losing my balance before scrambling for the door handle.
‘I don’t exist. This room, this hospital, none of it exists. You’re grasping at straws trying to explain events you’re in denial about, and you’ve created me as a figment of your imagination hoping that I was the answer to all your questions. A scythe-wielding skeleton who cuts short the lives of people who are loved and cherished, through illness or otherwise. You wish you could’ve done something even though there was nothing you could do, and it’s just something you have to learn to accept. Doctors are passionate, committed people; but they aren’t heroes. You might make it out to be so, but I’m not the villain. Circumstance, fate, chance and the essence of living itself lead us to this predicament.’
I turned back to face Death and looking her dead in the sockets, I uttered, ‘Being alive is just a difficult concept to understand when everyone enters this world only to learn that one day they have to leave it.’
Death chuckled once more, giving a final wave goodbye. ‘Your only real battle in life is knowing when to hang on and when to let go.’
Feature image by user Intelligentguy89 at Wikimedia Commons.